Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"What in the world is Rio+20?!?" - Part I: A Short History of UN International Negotiations for Sustainable Development

The Official Rio+20 Conference Logo
On June 13-22, the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The Brazilian national government wants to make this conference the largest United Nations event in history and estimates that more than 50,000 people will come to Rio to participate. Over 100 heads of state are expected to come to Brazil to negotiate a new agreement for sustainable development, and globally hopes are rising that Rio+20 will be in turning point in the history of the environmental movement.

Yet, beyond Rio+20 being a really big conference, few people seem to have any idea what the conference is about! After being involved with the Rio+20 process for the last six months through my work with the SustainUS Agents of Change delegation, I hope that my perspective will be useful for those for those hoping to learn more about the conference. This post is meant to serve as a brief introduction to the history of sustainable development negotiations within the United Nations. Later posts will cover the nuances and intricacies of the Rio+20 process, the hoped for outcomes of the Rio+20 process, and the ways that interested citizens can get involved in Rio+20.

I want to emphasize I am no expert on the United Nations or international negotiations, and most of what you are about to read I learned very recently. The bloated UN Bureaucracy still completely bamboozles me, but I’m fairly certain that the UN’s sustainable development initiatives are not a global socialist plot, as claimed by the Tea Party and the Republican National Committee. Instead, the UN is only a global platform for national leaders to try to reach agreement on how to deal with our most pressing crises. And if recent conferences mean anything, the approach doesn’t work all too well (see the failure of the Copenhagen climate negotiations for one recent example).

A Short History of International Negotiations for Sustainable Development

The story of sustainable development in the international context begins all the way back in 1972, when the world gathered in Stockholm for the UN Conference on the Human Environment. Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 book Silent Spring had recently helped to launch the modern environmental movement, and people were rapidly waking up to the threat posed by industrial pollution and environmental degradation. Stockholm resulted in the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), an international organization tasked with coordinating the UN’s environmental activities. While UNEP was a good start, it wasn’t enough to move the world towards true sustainability.

Fast forward to 1987: The UN World Commission on Environment and Development releases Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland report. Through this document, the world acknowledged that environmental protection and poverty eradication are inherently linked. Our Common Future also created the most common definition of sustainable development: 
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” 
Shortly after the Brundlandt Report, in 1992 Rio de Janeiro hosted the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also know as the “Rio Earth Summit.” This meeting was a big deal: 172 governments participated, along with 17,000 members of civil society. 108 heads of state personally attended the conference, and even George Bush Senior decided to take part, largely due to the pressure generated from the following PSA advertising campaign video (featuring James Earl Jones!): 

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit culminated with the creation of Agenda 21, a landmark global agreement for sustainable development in the 21st Century, and the Rio Declaration of Environment and Development.  The conference also opened the ratification process for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The 1992 Earth Summit was a truly historic moment for the environmental movement, what many might even call the high water mark in the world’s progress towards moving to a truly sustainable path.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had much success at sustainable development conferences since 1992. After the conclusion of the Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations General Assembly established the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to review progress and assist implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration. You probably haven’t heard of the CSD, and from my brief research it hasn’t seemed to do much in the past 20 years. Perhaps most noteworthy is that CSD negotiations have crashed and burned several times, most recently collapsing in May of last year during the critical CSD-19 meeting designed to “pave the way” to Rio+20.

In addition to bumbling through the CSD process during the past two decades, the world also decided to gather in Johannesburg for another attempt at a breakthrough Earth Summit. The 2002 conference, called the World Summit on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+10), was designed to evaluate the world’s progress in achieving the aims laid out at Rio in 1992. Largely due to limited participation by the United States, Rio+10 did not result in any major intergovernmental treaties (because of this, Greenpeace gave the summit an “F” in its final evaluation).


However, Johannesburg did create innovative “Type II partnerships” that facilitated collaborative initiatives between sub-national governments, private businesses, and civil society groups. According to the World Resources Institute, these Type II partnerships represented a major shift in dealing with global environmental problems:
This Summit will be remembered not for the treaties, commitments, or eloquent declarations it produced, but for the first stirrings of a new way of governing the global commons, the beginnings of a shift from the stiff formal waltz of traditional diplomacy to the jazzier dance of improvisational solution oriented partnerships that may include non-government organizations, willing governments and other stakeholders.”
One last thing to mention before closing this post: since 1992, negotiations on climate change have moved through a separate process from negotiations on sustainable development.  Climate change negotiations happen through the UNFCCC’s “Conference of Parties” (COP) process, where negotiators gather for roughly two weeks at the end of each year to work towards a global climate agreement.  The COP process is guided by UNFCCC Article II, which states a goal of achieving "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."  What constitutes "dangerous anthropogenic interference" is still open for debate, but through the Copenhagen Accord national political leaders (including President Obama himself) affirmed a target of less than 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial temperatures.

Just like the UN negotiations on sustainable development, we haven’t made much progress on climate change through the COP process.  COP 3 in 1997 resulted in the Kyoto Protocol¸ the world’s only binding climate treaty to date.  However, most countries have not met their original Kyoto targets in greenhouse gas reductions, and the United States refused to ratify the treaty without mandatory emission reductions from China and India.  The 2009 Copenhagen COP 15 negotiations were supposed to result in a replacement treaty for the Kyoto Protocol, but as mentioned earlier, the talks failed to do so.  At COP 17 in Durban this past December, the world agreed to negotiate a binding climate treaty by 2015.  But without any major domestic policy breakthroughs (particularly in the United States), I’m skeptical that any international climate treaty can be achieved.

And that brings us up to today.  National delegations are currently negotiating the “zero draft” document for the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  I’ll be blogging much more about the Rio+20 policy process soon, but for now, check out this resource guide for more information on the conference.

This post was submitted to the TckTckTck Rio Blogger Prize contest.

1 comment:

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